Researching the history of the Church before 1066


Dedication stone of St Paul's, Jarrow, dated 23 April 685.Datestones and inscriptions are helpful, but they can be moved; they may be carefully retained from an earlier building and set into new fabric. Similarly building materials may be reused, for example Roman stone or brick may appear in Anglo-Saxon church walls. The style of architectural details, such as windows and doors, is good dating evidence, but only for those features. New doors and windows can always be added to older fabric. Unravelling the sequence of building and alteration needs patience and practice: see guides to the interpretation of fabric.

Dedications, place-names and sites

A church dedication to a Saxon or Celtic saint suggest a pre-Conquest foundation, but beware - dedications do occasionally change: see Nicholas Orme, English Church Dedications: with a survey of Cornwall and Devon (1996). Where a place-name contains the church dedication e.g. Lamorran (Cornwall) = church-site of St Moren, or is formed entirely from the dedication e.g. St Budeaux (Devon), the dedication is likely to be original. However, where a dedication distinguishes a place from others of the same name e.g. Blandford St Mary (Dorset), the suffix is probably medieval.

Place-names derived from certain Latin terms suggest an early church. Baislec (Ireland), Paisley (Scotland) and Basaleg (Wales) stem from the Latin basilica, a particular type of Roman public building, on which many early churches were modelled. The word was absorbed into Irish Gaelic as baslec (church). Latin ecclesia ('church') became eglwys in Welsh: both eccles and eglwys occur in place-names. Latin dominicum (belonging to the lord) could be used to mean a church building up to c.600; it became domnach in Irish, and survives in place-names. Latin martyrium denotes the grave of a martyr and gave us the Welsh merthyr place-names and Merther (Cornwall).

The Cornish/Welsh word lann or llan occurs frequently in place-names. Originally meaning land, it gradually came to mean churchyard and then church and parish. The Gaelic word cil, meaning church, occurs in the many place-names of Ireland and Scotland starting with Kil-. The Papar Project looks at places in the Northern and Western Isles of Scotland which have the name Papay, meaning the island of the priests and Papil meaning the settlement of the priests. These were Norse names for the Celtic Christian communities they found there, presumably borrowed from Irish papa, itself borrowed from Latin.

Place-names ending in minster e.g. Yetminster are significant. OE mynster meant both monastery and a type of collegiate church, from which priests would serve the district. The Welsh equivalent was the clas (from Latin classis = band of people). When churches were built on the surrounding manors, they owed allegiance to the minster; vestiges of this system survived for centuries.

The parochial system we have today sprang largely from the desire of local lords to have their own church. A domestic chapel or oratory beside a manor house could evolve into a parish church. Betws (from OE bed-hus = oratory) occurs throughout Wales as a place-name element, often followed by a personal name, probably that of the founder. Richard Morris, Churches in the Landscape (1989) discusses churches beside manor houses and on other sites.

Check the etymology of a place-name in the publications listed under local history: place-names.


Aethelred's charter granting lands to Muchelney Abbey in 995 (Somerset Record Office) Early Churchmen, the most literate section of society, have left us more information about churches than any other type of building, but it still does not amount to a great deal. Charters or chronicles may give a foundation date for a monastery, but a detailed description is rare.


The Llandaff Charters (ed. Wendy Davies, 1979) appear to start from the 6th century and refer to over 50 religious foundations in South-east Wales. Many Anglo-Saxon charters and wills granted property to monastic houses. A foundation date may be deduced from these, but rarely any detail. The charters are almost all in print already, but are being gradually brought out in modern editions in Anglo-Saxon Charters, general ed. S. Keynes (series published by the OUP for the British Academy.) They are catalogued in P.H. Sawyer, Anglo-Saxon Charters: An annoted list and bibliography (1968), a revised version of which is available online. You can search the Sawyer catalogue and the full text of the charters at Charters. Where charter bounds are given, the text can be found online in LangScape.

Chronicles and saints' lives

The lives of Celtic or Anglo-Saxon saints often mention the churches or monasteries they founded, though those written centuries after the death of the saint have little value. Many can be read online. Bede's history of the English church was written in the 8th century and drawn on in Alfred's reign by those who compiled the early sections of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. Both can be read online, along with the Annales Cambriae (Welsh Annals) and Irish Annals. For Scottish annals and saints' lives see A. O. Anderson; similar material for Ireland is covered by Kenney, J.F., Sources for the Early History of Ireland: Ecclesiastical: An introduction and guide (1979). The Prosopography of Anglo-Saxon England (PASE) is an online database which aims to cover all of the recorded inhabitants of England from the late sixth to the end of the eleventh century.


English monastic houses featured in The Domesday Book, since they owned property. Several hundred churches are also mentioned, particularly in the east of England, but many went unrecorded. See Surveys for medieval surveys.